Kelli O’Hara has admitted that she was a little reluctant at first to sing some of the classic, heavily picked-over Gershwin songs before starting on “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” Thankfully that changed when she got to hold a gun.
The image of her cradling a rifle while singing “Someone to Watch Over Me” — complete with the now-ironic lyric “I’m a little lamb who’s lost in the wood” — is just one of dozens of inventive moments in the new musical comedy that opened Tuesday at the Imperial Theatre.
While O’Hara and Matthew Broderick are the stars on stage, the real credit for this very enjoyable romp goes to book writer Joe DiPietro and director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall.
They’ve managed to take about 20 songs from the George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin catalog, marry them to the skeleton of the 1926 musical “O, Kay!” and emerge with a plot that makes madcap sense with songs that feel right for the occasion. If this is a jukebox musical, this is how you do it right.
The action takes place in 1927 on Long Island with Broderick playing the wealthy playboy Jimmy who is about to marry a well-connected modern dancer (Jennifer Laura Thompson), which would be his fourth wife. Those plans go out the window when he meets a pretty, bootlegging dame played by O’Hara.
The musical includes such beautiful tunes as “Sweet and Lowdown,” ‘’Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” ‘’S’Wonderful,” ‘’They All Laughed” and “Fascinating Rhythm.” (Only songs from the Gerswin’s “Porgy and Bess,” playing in the Broadway theater next door, were off-limits to producers.)
There are visual delights in every scene, from a bunch of drunken partiers and chorus girls disappearing into a tiny shack, to a bride whose wedding veil never seems to end, to a woman literally swinging from a chandelier, to 10 dancers — six female, four male — leaping out of a small tub.
A boyish Broderick plays it all with a look of bemusement that often becomes outright giggles. Though not the world’s best singer or dancer, there’s something charming and self-conscious and arch about him, as if he’s just another audience member along for the fun. If he doesn’t take it all so seriously, why should we?
O’Hara is, as usual, strong and feminine even in men’s clothes, with a voice to make you swoon. She gets to loosen up in one bedroom number in which she too-aggressively tries to seduce Broderick’s playboy — in what becomes the worst strip tease in history — and ends up in a heap in the bed. Estelle Parsons makes a late appearance as the playboy’s mother and almost steals the show. Fear not, everyone is happily paired off at the end.
DiPietro, who turned “Memphis” into a Tony Award winner, has massaged the script to such an extent that he has been able to slip song after song into spots like a frame over artwork. “I’ve Got a Crush On You” is sung by the self-important bride-to-be Thompson, “I Am Just a Little Girl” is sung by a drunken temperance activist (Judy Kaye biting into a delicious role) and “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” — the one that playful contrasts to-mato versus to-mah-to — is sung right after the star-crossed main lovers have a fight, and it even gets joined by a police officer.
Marshall, a woman at home in a zany, feel-good world, lends some of the qualities that have made her “Anything Goes” a frothy must-see: Long-limbed dancing girls waving their arms in the sky, making huge kicks and doing a bit of naughty rear end bending and shaking. In one dance sequence Broderick and O’Hara dance on top of a table, chair, couch, end table and staircase, basically any possible surface on stage.
Many members of Marshall’s “Anything Goes” team have been reunited here: Costumes by Martin Pakledinaz emphasize short skirts, spats and hats, a glimpse of stocking — remember when that was shocking? — pinstriped suits and skimpy dresses. Derek McLane’s sets are rich and luxurious, from a glorious veranda to a ritzy dining room.
There’s a secondary love story between Jeannie the chorus girl (the not-to-be-messed-with Robyn Hurder) and a bootlegger named Duke (a teddy bearish Chris Sullivan). Other impressive turns are taken by Michael McGrath as wise guy Cookie McGee and Terry Beaver as the imperious Sen. Max Evergreen.
“Oh, enough with this song and dance,” says an irritated Evergreen at one point.
Perish the thought.
Swirling with bootleggers and bathtub gin, the Prohibition-era musical comedy cocktail “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is a light-hearted romp, but unfortunately, it’s not as intoxicating as you’d hope.
Yes, star turns by Matthew Broderick and Kelli O’Hara give you a buzz. Ditto the classic George and Ira Gershwin showtunes, even though many of the songs are shoehorned in. If the show was all-singing and dancing, it could get by on charm alone.
But the story by Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”), which closely mimics 1920s musicals, is a rusty antique knockoff that sobers you up faster than a cup of black coffee. Why spend so much energy making something new that’s already old?
The complicated but still predictable plot revolves around Jimmy Winter (Broderick), a rich playboy who’s about to marry Mrs. Winter No. 4 when he collides with Billie Bendix (O’Hara), a rough-and-tumble rumrunner. You know that planned wedding is a goner.
The show plays to its stars’ strengths — Broderick’s patented goofy and wimpy demeanor and O’Hara’s lustrous voice on songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me.” She also displays deft and surprising bits of Lucille Ball-inspired physical comedy.
Dancing like Fred and Ginger to “’S Wonderful,” Broderick and O’Hara make a cute couple, which isn’t the same as saying they set off fireworks.
Also showcased are a top-shelf roster of supporting talents, including Judy Kaye, as a die-hard teetotaler; Jennifer Laura Thompson, as Jimmy’s finicky fiance; comic ace Michael McGrath, as Billie’s partner in crime, and Oscar winner Estelle Parsons, who arrives late as Jimmy’s mom to tie up the endless plot threads.
Fresh from “Anything Goes,” director and choreographer Kathleen Marshall wraps the show up in plenty of eye candy. Lavish sets go from seedy New York City docks to glamorous Long Island boudoirs, while colorful and witty costumes define characters and the period. It all gets lit in a warm glow.
Marshall's production numbers are clever and polished. The giddiest moment comes during the relatively obscure song “Delishious.” In it, a bubble bath turns into a pink fantasy production. It’s totally kooky and unexpected. Just what the nice but predictable “Nice Work” needs more of.
There’s a lot of fun stuff in “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” a new musical made of old parts. For starters, this Gershwin jukebox is loaded with unimpeachable classics and a few brilliant obscurities. They’re strung together by a zany, Prohibition-set book inspired by the George and Ira musical “Oh, Kay!” — which premiered at the very same Imperial Theatre in 1926.
We also get the fabulous Kelli O’Hara, who after “The Pajama Game” and “South Pacific” confirms she’s among the finest interpreters of the Great American Songbook on Broadway right now.
Here, she plays Billie Bendix, a tomboyish bootlegger who croons “Someone To Watch Over Me” while wielding a rifle, and slapsticks her way through “Treat Me Rough” — she sings while executing a medal-worthy gymnastics routine. You have to wonder if there’s anything O’Hara can’t do.
She even pulls off the steps director-choreographer Kathleen Marshall cooked up, and O’Hara isn’t known for her hoofing.
Add a big bunch of ripe second bananas, swell chorus boys and girls, grand sets by Derek McLane and stylish costumes by Martin Pakledinaz, and you have nearly all the basics for a tasty Broadway show.
Except for one.
You see, Billie’s love interest is a hapless, womanizing “wealthy playboy” named Jimmy Winter. And he’s played by Matthew Broderick, in his first musical outing since “The Producers.”
It’s hard to say this delicately, so let’s just rip off the Band-Aid: This is one of the most unappealing performances of the past few years.
For us to buy Billie’s love, Jimmy has to be goofily charming. But Broderick keeps a frozen half-smile pasted on his face the entire time, so his Jimmy just looks semi-idiotic. What a catch!
And while his thin, reedy singing voice has an appropriate period feel, the star isn’t enough of a mover to pull off Marshall’s dance numbers.
Unfortunately, he has quite a few of them, including an extended pas de deux with O’Hara where you can almost see him count beats in his head, like a Week 1 contestant on “Dancing With the Stars.”
At least you can block out this problem for large chunks of the evening. Following the procedure established by Gershwin-based musicals like “My One and Only” and “Crazy for You,” book writer Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”) crammed the show with oddball characters and subplots.
There are groaners, as when fake butler Cookie (the hardworking Michael McGrath) tells Billie, “You’re smart, you’re shrewd and you got the tenacity of an Irish priest at an open bar.” DiPietro isn’t a wit, but he throws so much stuff at the wall that some of it is bound to stick.
And the primo supporting cast is talented enough to sell it all. Judy Kaye, as a temperance leader gone tipsy, literally swings from the chandelier. Jennifer Laura Thompson is a riot as “the finest interpreter of modern dance in the whole world.” Chris Sullivan and Robyn Hurder deliciously play up the loony romance between a big galoot and a ditzy chorus girl.
Even at his most leaden, Broderick can’t quite sink this ship.
Every now and then, a bubble of pure, tickling charm rises from the artificial froth of “Nice Work if You Can Get It,” the pastiche of a 1920s musical featuring songs by George and Ira Gershwin. Most of this show, which opened on Tuesday night at the Imperial Theater, registers as a shiny, dutiful trickle of jokes and dance numbers performed by talented people who don’t entirely connect with the whimsy of a bygone genre.
But then, all at once, there’s a moment of delicate ridiculousness, of utterly credible improbability, that signals what Kathleen Marshall, the production’s director and choreographer, must have been aiming for. Take the case of the girl with the gun, for instance.
The girl is Kelli O’Hara, and she’s singing “Someone to Watch Over Me,” one of the Gershwins’ most exquisite ballads, in a sweet silver voice that shimmers with wistfulness. And all the while, she is cradling a rifle like someone who definitely knows how (and plans) to use it.
Portraying a suddenly love-struck, pants-wearing bootlegger named Billie Bendix, Ms. O’Hara never acknowledges the contradiction in the picture she makes. It’s up to us to infer the enchanted absurdity of that image, which would have us all laughing boisterously, except that we want to hear Ms. O’Hara sing.
Even better is the scene in which Billie and the much-married millionaire playboy Jimmy Winter (Matthew Broderick) realize that, despite their extreme differences, they were meant to be together forever. And how is this discovery made?
Why, through dancing, of course, to “ ‘S Wonderful,” another Gershwin classic. The couple moves in effortless, hypnotized harmony, covering a complete catalog of ballroom steps, while tumbling over furniture and waltzing up a staircase. Mr. Broderick and Ms. O’Hara may not have the expertise of Astaire and Rogers. (Who does?) But they summon the spirit and subtext of every transcendent mating dance from the Fred-and-Ginger movies.
Those two scenes account for perhaps 15 minutes of a show that runs 150 minutes (including intermission). And while those other 100-and-some minutes are mildly entertaining, you feel the ache of knowing that they could be so much more.
Featuring a book by Joe DiPietro (“Memphis”), “Nice Work if You Can Get It” was inspired by the nonsensical musical-comedy plots concocted by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse (the man who gave us Jeeves). This show — mostly set in a Long Island mansion, where trespassing bootleggers have stashed their crates of gin — borrows liberally from “Oh, Kay!,” their 1926 hit starring Gertrude Lawrence. But “Nice Work” is a homage to a host of Jazz Age musicals in which outlandish plots were mere pegboards for songs, dances, gags and idiosyncratic star turns.
Ms. Marshall has already proved her affinity for the crazy salad days of the American musical with last year’s Tony-winning revival of “Anything Goes,” the 1934 Cole Porter show, which also had an original book by Bolton and Wodehouse. Ms. Marshall’s “Anything Goes,” with Sutton Foster as its star (it continues to run without Ms. Foster), exuded a sassy, go-for-broke momentum that overrode all inconsistencies in logic (and, for that matter, casting).
Her approach to “Nice Work” is gentler and more tentative. I think this stems partly from the choice of Mr. Broderick, in his first musical role on Broadway since “The Producers” (2000), as the show’s leading man. Mr. Broderick’s comic persona in recent years has solidified into that of an abstracted, inhibited, adorably passive nerd, a type he exploited beautifully in “The Producers.”
Such droll, straight-faced passivity doesn’t match up as neatly with the philandering hedonist he plays here. He sings and dances pleasantly and competently, but rather vaguely, too, as if his thoughts were elsewhere. And when he proclaims that he’s possessed by “fascinating rhythm” — in a first-act curtain number that places him in the center of a bevy of lascivious flappers — you’re inclined to doubt it.
The title role played by Lawrence in “Oh, Kay!” has been reconceived for Ms. O’Hara, one of the finest musical actresses of her generation. Kay, like Billie, was a bootlegger, but she was also a titled Englishwoman. Billie is both of the people and one of the boys. This makes sense, since Ms. O’Hara has already shown a winning way with hoydenish, down-to-earth parts in the marvelous revivals of “The Pajama Game” (staged by Ms. Marshall) and “South Pacific.”
But Ms. O’Hara’s strength is in sincerity, in finding through song the soul of conflicted characters. (Her voice, for the record, is heavenly here.) Billie is a part for a sexy shtick artist who sells her own personality.
Ms. O’Hara brings professional proficiency to her comic bits, including a Cockney maid impersonation that’s a tip of the hat to Lawrence. But she’s not a natural exhibitionist. And without a real character to play, she becomes almost as recessive as Mr. Broderick. In other words, aside from that “ ‘S Wonderful” duet, don’t count on chemistry between them.
Among the supporting cast, the impeccable Judy Kaye, in the regulation role of a Prohibitionist battle-ax, manages to make something fresh of a drunken scene that requires her to swing from a chandelier. Michael McGrath brings his usual assured timing to the part of a bootlegger pretending to be a butler. And the astonishing Estelle Parsons swaggers commandingly in an 11 o’clock appearance as Jimmy’s imperious mother.
As Jimmy’s pretentious fiancée, a terpsichorean artiste named Eileen Evergreen, Jennifer Laura Thompson appears to be copying Madeline Kahn’s delicious cartoons of prissy heiresses from screwball comedies. This means that what we have here is a pastiche of a pastiche and, like much of “Nice Work” itself, it feels ersatz.
The immortal Gershwin score is done luscious justice by the orchestra. (David Chase is the music supervisor.) Derek McLane’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes brim with flash and color. And as fluent as always in the period she means to evoke, Ms. Marshall has drilled her agile dancers to perform every possible variation on the Charleston.
Yet the alchemy that could elicit magic from these promising ingredients is only fitfully in evidence. “Nice Work” suffers from comparison not only to Ms. Marshall’s “Anything Goes” but also to the newly opened National Theater production of “One Man, Two Guvnors,” a paradigm of transporting, precision-tooled farce.
In another season, perhaps, this good-looking, amiable production would be a must-have ticket. As it is, I found myself thinking of another work about bathtub gin and flappers running wild, Billy Wilder’s great movie farce of the Roaring Twenties, “Some Like It Hot.” An alternative title for “Nice Work” might be “Some Like It Lukewarm.”
Call it a Franken-musical, stitched together out of body parts from different shows. But "Nice Work If You Can Get It," which has been sewn together with a grab bag of wondrous Gershwin songs and a preposterous new-old bootlegging comedy, is a happy creature -- loose and larky and altogether comfortable in its snappily dressed patchwork skin.
Kathleen Marshall, whose award-winning direction and choreography often have struck me as more functionally admirable than lovably original, has put together a rowdy, dopey-smart, dance-driven screwball comedy that never shies from the extravagant edge of clunky silliness.
Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Broderick may not seem a likely romantic couple. But their different styles -- her crisp and sublime professionalism, his sleepy-faced cunning naiveté and low-watt skills -- spark unexpected chemistry. At least they are very sweet together.
Joe DiPietro ("Memphis") has used some outlines of "Oh, Kay," a genuine Prohibition fluff ball from 1926, for his new story. He switches the power of the illegal-hooch gang from the guys to a plucky woman in guy's clothes -- O'Hara. She tries to hide a stash in the cellar of a Long Island beach mansion, owned by the debauched, adored, multi-married playboy -- no kidding, Broderick.
There are cleverly foolish and lavish old-fashioned sets by Derek McLane and comical yet gorgeous costumes by Martin Pakledinaz (Marshall's team from "Anything Goes"). The big cast includes the terrific Michael McGrath as a fast-mouthed thug, a kind of Nathan Lane foil for Broderick's light comedy faux-sincerity.
Judy Kaye literally hangs from the chandelier as the dowager prohibitionist with the operetta belt. Estelle Parsons has a cameo as Broderick's supposedly disapproving mother, and Jennifer Laura Thompson has pinpoint comic timing as his ritzy, self-adoring fiancee.
And then there are the songs by George and Ira Gershwin, not just the title classic, but "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off," "Fascinating Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," and lesser-known, equally irresistible treasures. O'Hara, with a freshness and spontaneity that should contradict her meticulous vocal technique, brandishes a shotgun while wistfully singing "Someone to Watch Over Me." Broderick, with a stiff upper-body posture that suggests he's balancing an egg on his head, lets us enjoy the surprise of his easygoing accurate voice and fleet feet.
The chorus is big and healthy and lusty, with choreography that appreciates individuality as much as precision. This may not be important work, but it's much more than nice.
Risk-averse nostalgists, rejoice: There's a brand new jukebox musical on Broadway.
True, Nice Work If You Can Get It (* * * out of four) doesn't use an inane story line to simply string together a beloved band or singer's catalog or a bunch of disparate rock chestnuts. Instead, it uses an unoriginal story line to string together the timeless songs of George and Ira Gershwin.
This distinction shouldn't make Nice Work, which opened Tuesday at the Imperial Theatre, much more encouraging to people who care about keeping musical theater fresh and vital. But director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall and a stellar cast ensure that the show is as charming in execution as it is disheartening in theory.
The plot, set in the Prohibition era, involves a soft-living playboy who, on the weekend that his third marriage is scheduled, falls rather inconveniently for a hard-bitten bootlegger. Matthew Broderick, in his first Broadway musical since The Producers, is the playboy, Jimmy Winter; Kelli O'Hara is the bootlegger, Billie Bendix.
Memphis librettist/co-lyricist Joe DiPietro wrote the book, inspired by material by the late, great wordsmiths Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse (notably the Gershwins' musical Oh, Kay!), though that inspiration is less than steady. For every sharp line, there's one that will make you wince — or would have, if it wasn't delivered with such disarming spirit and skill.
Broderick turns Jimmy into the kind of character he does best: a sweetly deadpan social doofus. He also sings breezy tunes such as 'S Wonderful and Do, Do, Do and dances with an appealingly light touch, especially when spinning his leading lady around in a witty second-act sequence.
O'Hara proves once again that there's pretty much nothing she can't do on stage. No matter that the tough but tender Billie can seem quaint; the actress makes her adorable and funny, and as usual sings gorgeously — though you may wish they had relaxed the tempo a bit on Someone To Watch Over Me or But Not For Me, and let that sumptuous soprano linger more.
Granted, a slower pace might not have suited the proceedings, which Marshall guides with the same giddy panache that distinguished her revivals of Anything Goes and The Pajama Game. One clever, frothy production number is a bath scene in which "bubble boys and girls" artfully wrap Jennifer Laura Thompson, as Jimmy's obnoxious fiancée, in an enormous towel. In another, the excellent Judy Kaye, playing a smug Prohibition advocate, sips spiked lemonade and gets flamboyantly frisky.
Other standout performers include Michael McGrath, as a cohort of Billie's who goes undercover as the world's most reluctant butler; and Estelle Parsons, in a brief but priceless turn as Jimmy's domineering yet surprisingly free-thinking mom.
In a season with few substantial new musicals, Nice Work's empty calories are a forgivable indulgence. So dig in — resistance is futile.
The newly manufactured 1920s-set musical "Nice Work if You Can Get It" crams vintage Gershwin songs into a bubbly crowdpleaser, enchantingly rendered by thesps Kelli O'Hara, Michael McGrath and Judy Kaye. Mix in staging and choreography by Kathleen Marshall ("Anything Goes") and a cheerfully screwball if somewhat creaky new book by Joe DiPietro, and you've got what might be termed a good new old-fashioned musical. If only its likable, hard-working leading man -- a miscast Matthew Broderick -- didn't seem to be painfully concentrating on his next step, all night long.
DiPietro ("Memphis") has borrowed plot and characters from the 1926 musical "Oh, Kay!" for this Prohibition-era tale of a dissipated playboy (Broderick) who falls for a distaff bootlegger (O'Hara), who illicitly commandeers his Long Island mansion to store her illegal hooch. Comic misunderstandings ensue and eventually resolve into four or five sets of happy lovers, plus lots of dancing.
Twenty-one Gershwin tunes are shoehorned in; many sparkle, some don't quite fit, and a couple of long-lost tunes don't deserve disinterment. "Nice Work" is also carpeted with underscoring pulled from George's symphonic catalog, so it's wall-to-wall Gershwin for aficionados, compiled by an uncredited music expert who clearly knows his or her stuff.
Cast is, for the most part, topnotch. O'Hara ("South Pacific") has long displayed one of the best singing voices currently on the boards, but nothing thus far has shown off her aptitude for clowning. Her tomboyish bootlegger here is not only a first-class mug but a first-class mugger, turning pratfalls with ease.
Broderick proved perfectly capable in his last musical comedy, starring opposite Nathan Lane in "The Producers." Here, though, he is given dance number after dance number, and while he's able to get his legs working, more or less, his upper body is so distressingly rigid that he dances like he's strapped into a neck brace. When "Nice Work" gets frothy, as it frequently does, he kicks up his heels in a manner that leaves one feeling sorry for the actor, which continually lets the helium out of the figurative balloon.
The supporting clowns provide plenty of joy. McGrath ("Spamalot"), an always reliable musical comedian, outdoes himself in the sort of role that used to be written for Bert Lahr. The equally accomplished Judy Kaye ("The Phantom of the Opera") has a harder time of it; her character -- Duchess Estonia Fulworth, a Prohibitionist harpy with a tender side -- is clumsily drawn, and by the second act, the author has her trilling madly and literally swinging from a chandelier. Still, Kaye pulls it off admirably.
Also on hand are Jennifer Laura Thompson ("Urinetown"), forced to give an evening-long Madeline Kahn impersonation; Robyn Hurder, as a friendly flapper; and Stanley Wayne Mathis as a G-man searching for the booze. Stepping in for the final 20 minutes playing Broderick's mother, is Estelle Parsons. This being flimsy musical comedy, she brings two major plot surprises.
Leading man aside, director-choreographer Marshall keeps "Nice Work" humming. Her dances are enjoyable, but never quite build in the manner of her other current Broadway outing, "Anything Goes" (in which she had a star, Sutton Foster, who could outdance the chorus kids). Marshall's design team from that musical -- Derek McLane (sets) and Martin Pakledinaz (costumes) -- here provide a suitably ritzy physical production that well captures the humor of the occasion.